Syria’s deadly spillover

The wildfires of Syria’s war will continue to spread across the region if more imaginative measures aren’t taken.

Syrian fighters take positions as they await US-led air strikes on Manbij''s mills where ISIL fighters are positioned, in Aleppo, Syria [REUTERS]
Syrian fighters take positions as they await US-led air strikes on Manbij''s mills where ISIL fighters are positioned, in Aleppo, Syria [REUTERS]

Recent deadly events in the Middle East have taken attention away from the central Syrian conflict.

Suicide bombers have struck three Saudi cities, multiple suicide attacks have hit a Christian village in North-Eastern Lebanon, Turkey is still reeling from the attack on its international airport in Istanbul, Jordan has declared its Syria border a closed military zone while Iraqis are still getting over the huge attack that killed 292 people in Baghdad.

While the conflict inside Syria is fluid, multi-layered and deadly, it has been relatively, and somewhat surprisingly, contained over the past five years. This can no longer be said to be the case and a new European Council on Foreign Relations report has warned of a “regional contagion” as the delicate balance of power in Syria’s neighbours and the wider Middle East beings to wobble.

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The reasons behind this lie in both direct spillover from Syria as well as the conflict exacerbating traditional domestic tensions within the neighbourhood.

Declining capacity

The spillover can be measured in terms of declining capacity to continue to accommodate the nearly five million refugees and the challenge of transnational militants travelling from Syria to carry out attacks.

In domestic terms, weak states in Iraq and Lebanon have found their body politic largely defined by gridlock and an inability to chart any strategic vision of the future, while in Turkey renewed fighting with Kurdish groups inside the country has been of serious consequence.

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In terms of the particular threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), as the group is pushed more and more on to the back foot in Iraq and Syria, it may look to move from conventional to more unconventional tactics to maintain a tactical momentum.

ISIL attacks, especially against symbolic targets, have the potential to act as deadly catalysts to rapid destabilisation.

With an estimated 2,000 Jordanians, 2,000 Turks and 1,000 Lebanese fighting alongside ISIL in Syria and Iraq there is also the potential for many fighters returning home if ISIL continues to lose its urban areas following Ramadi and Fallujah’s fall and pressure increasing on Raqqa and Mosul.

ISIL attacks, especially against symbolic targets, have the potential to act as deadly catalysts to rapid destabilisation. Istanbul has already been hit three times this year.

The tourism sector, struggling after Russia told its holidaymakers to stay away, has taken a huge hit.

In Iraq, recent attacks on market places and religious shrines are designed to exacerbate sectarian tensions.

Tactical ISIL attacks could stoke Turkey’s internal ethnic tensions and with the Syrian regime reportedly cutting off Opposition held parts of Aleppo, their border may find itself under significantly more pressure from fleeing civilians.

Smoke and flames rise after alleged US-led air strikes on the mills of Manbij where ISIL fighters are positioned, in Aleppo [REUTERS]

Security first approach

In Lebanon, ISIL attacks against Saudi targets could trigger further moves from Riyadh out of the country.  

Imposing a security-first approach on the Syrian refugees in the region may marginalise millions of vulnerable people even further and perhaps even push them into the arms of ISIL recruiters.

In Lebanon, for example, there have already been reports of raids into Syrian refugee settlements and curfews imposed.

What is more, if the security threat from Syria continues to grow rather than just closing and securing their own borders, Jordan and Turkey may look to establish forward borders and safe zones to ensure that they are better able to keep Syria’s fires away from them.

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This regional threat means that there is a clear and urgent need to give impetus to Syria peace efforts that have flatlined over the past few months.

The current drift is not without consequences elsewhere as regional resilience is not infinite.

In addition, the increase in regional instability needs a response from world powers to ensure that not only are refugee appeals fully funded, which sounds simple but has been a constant battle to ensure countries fulfil their pledges, but more direct and imaginative initiatives are also pursued.

This means refocusing the campaign against ISIL away from a Raqqa/Mosul twin focus to one that takes better account for regional security.

It also means that the European Union in particular steps up to commit to large-scale development projects in the region that could both address the thorny issue of refugee employment, but would also be symbolic of a genuine commitment and partnership to facing up to the challenge of the Syrian conflict between Europe and the regional powers.

The ECFR report warned that “the region’s fragile stability is hanging by a thread”. This thread needs to be grasped, strengthened and supported, otherwise the scenario of the wildfires of Syria’s conflict spreading across the region will become very real indeed.

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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